Bishop Rolando Álvarez prays at a Catholic church in Managua, Nicaragua May 20, 2022 (OSV News photo/Maynor Valenzuela, Reuters).

Exile or twenty-six years in jail: two months ago, Msgr. Rolando José Álvarez Lagos, the bishop of the Nicaraguan city of Matagalpa, faced that choice. He chose jail. Daniel Ortega, co-dictator of Nicaragua, was angered by the bishop’s decision. Ortega hadn’t considered the possibility that any of the 223 political prisoners he had chosen to deport would instead decide to stay. 

Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, rule Nicaragua by decree. Their party, the Sandinistas, was once a revolutionary force; today, it is a vehicle for the ruling couple’s cruelty. Msgr. Álvarez’s choice amounted to an act of rebellion, even if it meant that he would remain under the dictators’ control. A quick trial was arranged, and a corrupt judge read the charges: “Betrayal of the homeland,” “undermining national integrity,” and “spreading fake news.”

During the trial, an agitated Ortega called the bishop’s choice “absurd” and accused him of pride and, incredibly, of having chosen the more comfortable path. “He has been treated amazingly well,” Ortega said. “I was in prison for seven years and I have never met…a prisoner who was treated in such a way.” It’s true that Álvarez has been spared El Chipote, an infamous jail where political prisoners sleep on concrete slabs, starve for weeks at a time, and are locked in dark rooms. But La Modelo, the fifty-year-old prison where the bishop is currently detained, is only a little better. One report describes it as having “obsolete plumbing”; its inmates are often deprived of shoes and soap and live on a diet of rice and beans.

Pope Francis called the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship “nasty” and “obscene” and compared it with those of Hitler and Lenin.

It’s the bishop’s open opposition to the regime that earned him Ortega’s enmity. Last August, having already confined Álvarez to his episcopal residence for almost two weeks, Ortega transferred him to the capital, Managua, where he spent several months under house arrest. The bishop was then charged with inciting “acts of hatred” and “destabilizing” the state. What he had really done was denounce the government’s crimes. Since crackdowns began in 2018—after mass anti-government protests broke out across the country—Nicaraguan police have shut down Catholic radio stations, jailed priests for political homilies, installed recording devices in churches, censored newspapers, shot activists, tortured prisoners, deported the Missionaries of Charity, exiled political opponents, outlawed outdoor religious processions (even during Holy Week)…it’s a long list. Álvarez denounced all of it—in homilies and public statements and, last May, with a hunger strike.

Suddenly, on February 10, he and 222 other political prisoners were told that their citizenship had been revoked and that they would all be flown to the United States. Instead, the bishop chose to remain in Nicaragua, come what may. Ortega no doubt thought that he was ridding himself of a meddlesome priest; instead, he may have created a martyr.

In a March interview, Pope Francis called the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship “nasty” and “obscene” and compared it with those of Hitler and Lenin. Álvarez’s choice, the pope said, was the choice “of witness.” Dora María Téllez, a famous Sandinista guerrilla who fought alongside Ortega during the 1970s, was among those deported to the United States. She was a commander in the 1978 coup that put the Sandinistas in power. But her more recent break with Ortega, and above all her commitment to democracy, earned her solitary confinement and torture. Of Álvarez’s decision, she said: “[Ortega] believes that people will kneel before him. And Monsignor Álvarez will not kneel. No matter where they throw him.”  

Santiago Ramos is a contributing writer for Commonweal.

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Published in the May 2023 issue: View Contents
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